For the past few years, Hollywood has conducted its business to the unsettling sound of hundreds of millions of hard-to-come-by dollars whooshing into the giant maw of James Cameron's new sci-fi epic, Avatar. As a director, the 55-year-old brings to the movies some incontestable advantages – and a couple of reasons why, if you were thinking of employing him, you might not want to rush the decision.
One is a fondness for monstrous budgets, which admittedly furnish his films with impressive casts and bleeding-edge special effects, but cause long-term sleeping difficulties for studio executives. The other is a troublesome mixture of insecurity and absence of tact.
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"Let us join together in silence in memory of the 1,500 people who died when the ship went down," Cameron said upon collecting his Best Director Oscar for Titanic. "… and now, let's party until dawn!" Irritated that Arnold Schwarzenegger had gone sightseeing in Washington DC during the filming of True Lies, he thrust his face an inch from his leading man's and bellowed: "Do you want Paul Verhoeven to finish this mother------?"
For better or worse, Cameron has been quiet since the release of Titanic in 1997. Perhaps too quiet. Although the film went on to become the biggest box office hit in history – with a global take of $1.8 billion – it presented the director with the problem of surpassing it with something even bigger.
That something has now arrived. Avatar is a computer-effects-heavy 3-D space fantasy, set 125 years in the future, about a disabled US Marine, Jake Sully, who is sent to Pandora, a moon of the distant Centauri star system, to find supplies of "unobtainium", an energy-rich mineral. Upon arrival, Jake discovers a world of beauty and innocence, populated by 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned beings called the Na'vi, whose peaceful existence the humans proceed to rock.
Cameron first hatched the story 14 years ago, but found that the technology needed to realise it didn't exist. The new digital 3-D system solved the problem; indeed, powerful voices in Hollywood, including that of Steven Spielberg, have predicted that the results are so immersive that the film and technology represent "the future of the movies", while cinemas have been scrambling to convert to the new format.
The reviews have been generally favourable. "The most expensive and technically ambitious film ever made," reports the influential Hollywood trade magazine Variety, "James Cameron's long-gestating epic delivers unique spectacle, breathtaking sights and narrative excitement." The rival Hollywood Reporter cheers: "As commander-in-chief of an army of visual-effects technicians, creature designers, motion-capture mavens, stunt performers, dancers, actors and music and sound magicians, Cameron brings science-fiction movies into the 21st century with the jaw-dropping wonder that is Avatar."
Cameron pays unusually close attention to reviews. When Kenneth Turan, the highly regarded critic on the Los Angeles Times, exercised his right to dislike Titanic – a "hackneyed and completely derivative copy" of the classic Hollywood romance – Cameron went ballistic, penning a furious rebuttal in which he denounced the review as "the vitriolic ravings of a bitter man… the worst sort of ego-driven elitism".
Why such sensitivity? In a long, choleric interview in the current edition of The New Yorker, Cameron – clearly still seething over the affair – appears to suggest that the critics had it in for him, and were confounded when Titanic was a hit with audiences. "We were branded the biggest idiots in movie history," he fumes. "They were just sharpening up their knives so they could really take the film apart. Then they couldn't. So ---- them. ---- 'em all."
Those who seek to explain Cameron's irascibility and thin-skinnedness point – as he does himself – to his working-class background and ingrained suspicion of the way the movie industry operates. "I try to live with honour," he says, "even if it costs me millions of dollars and takes a long time. It's very unusual in Hollywood. Few people are trustworthy: a handshake means nothing to them. They feel they are required to keep an agreement with you only if you are successful."
He was born, one of five children, in Kapuskasing, a small, mostly French-speaking town in Ontario, Canada, where his father worked at the local paper mill. When he was 14, he went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi masterpiece, and became fascinated by the kind of hyper-realistic visual effects the film pioneered.
A few years later, the Camerons moved to southern California, where James – with no educational qualifications – took a succession of lowly jobs, first as a factory machinist, then as a truck driver, and later as a model-maker at a film studio.
An incurable workaholic (he claims to have worked on Avatar for 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for two years), he rose rapidly as a designer of sets and special effects. Then, in 1984, he got his first directing break with The Terminator, a low-budget thriller starring the barely comprehensible Schwarzenegger as a rogue cyborg, which earned an extraordinary $78 million.
The film's unexpected success marked the end of Cameron's deference to studio bean-counters. His sequel, Terminator 2, was the first movie to cost $100 million; Titanic was the first to cost $200 million; and the budget for Avatar is believed to have exceeded $300 million.
Critics occasionally suggest that the green stuff covers up flaws which other filmmakers wouldn't get away with, but it's hard to deny that Cameron has delivered value for money. Then again, it isn't only critics who find him tough going. He has been accused by the Screen Actors Guild of mistreating casts with his punishing routines and combative approach, and Kate Winslet has declared that she'd need an unusually large fee before working with him again. Five wives – the current one being actress Suzy Amis – testify further to the challenging complexities of his personality.
When Titanic won 11 Oscars – the most since Ben Hur – Cameron declared himself, before a billion viewers, to be "King of the World". Those who winced at the display should have realised that he was only getting started. With Avatar, and the 3-D age it could usher in, he's aiming to be Master of the Universe.